As Winter Meetings begin, Blue Jays can’t let pitching market get away

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins. (Chris Young/CP)

On the eve of the 2019 Winter Meetings, the Toronto Blue Jays find themselves at an intersection of sorts.

Despite what GM Ross Atkins characterizes as aggressive discussions, the Blue Jays have yet to sign a free agent to a major-league contract. They’ve made offers, just no deals. Yet with each starting pitcher that comes off the board, the list of viable starters shrinks.

So as team executives make their way to San Diego for four days of rumours and deals, the Blue Jays must read the market as it develops and decide: will their measured approach allow them to help a rotation in serious need of reinforcements, or is it time to recalibrate a little and make sure one of their next offers is tempting enough to lure a starter to Toronto?

“We’ll just continue what we’ve been doing to understand every opportunity across the entire market,” Atkins told the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America last week. “The top of it, the middle of it and beyond that. There’s not a free-agent pitcher that we haven’t touched base with and we have been aggressively trying to understand every opportunity. We’ll continue to do that.”

To suggest that the Blue Jays must leave San Diego with a starting pitcher in hand would be short-sighted and overly simplistic. Some teams used to operate that way, treating the Winter Meetings like a deadline, and it led to deals they later regretted. There’s no need to act desperately in December.

Reinforcing that point, recent history does suggest bargains will emerge for teams that stay patient. But even if that’s been true in a general sense, it doesn’t guarantee the Blue Jays anything this winter – and right now, the starting pitching market’s moving pretty quickly.

First, it was Kyle Gibson and Jake Odorizzi. Then it was Zack Wheeler and Cole Hamels followed by Michael Pineda and Jordan Lyles. Maybe Madison Bumgarner will be next. Bit by bit, the list of viable options has shrunk already.

Granted, there are still pitchers available even after those deals, Hyun-jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel, Rick Porcello, Tanner Roark, Wade Miley, Julio Teheran and Josh Lindblom among them. In theory, the Blue Jays could still land two of those remaining starters.

Beyond that group, though, the free agent market really does thin out. Realistically, the Blue Jays probably need to sign at least one of those seven pitchers. Otherwise, they’re right back where they were last year, when Clay Buchholz (6.56 ERA), Clayton Richard (5.96 ERA) and Edwin Jackson (11.12 ERA) got regular reps in the rotation.

As Atkins said in October, “It’s not good enough just to have depth. You have to have major-league pieces and guys that can contribute in significant ways.”

To acquire those impact pitchers, a lot has to go right. You have to identify the right players then persuade them to move to Toronto – not always an easy sell. Some players are wary of unfamiliarity and bristle at the idea of higher taxes or long lineups at customs. Plus, the Blue Jays lost 95 games last year. If you want to win, the Blue Jays aren’t your first choice.

Those are challenges, for sure, but they can’t be excuses. Not only do the Blue Jays need pitching, they have lots of payroll flexibility – more than every team but the Marlins, according to FanGraphs’ estimates.

With some viable starters still unsigned, it’s not time to panic. But it will soon be time to match actions with words. The Blue Jays have said for a while that they’ll spend when the time is right. They’ve said all off-season that they need more starting pitchers. And yet the rotation now consists of Chase Anderson and too many question marks.

Whether it’s in two days or two weeks or two months, doesn’t really matter. But viewed objectively, the Blue Jays’ rotation just isn’t good enough right now. That’s what prompted their search for pitching in the first place. Eventually, it has to lead to some meaningful upgrades.

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